The Bluebell Story

The story of Bluebell Margarine from Wigtownshire began around the turn of the twentieth century but its roots go back a little earlier.

In order to meet the growing demand for dairy produce, the Glasgow based Scottish Co-operative Wholesale Society established a branch at Enniskillen in Ireland in 1885. With reasonable access to Irish farm produce it was successful as a collecting centre with rail links to Londonderry and Belfast and from there, by steamer to Glasgow. In order to improve the quality of Irish butter which “was not always produced under the best conditions, or in the most salubrious premises” the Society opened a creamery in Enniskillen in 1898. Unfortunately it met with some opposition, and even the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society did not take kindly to the scheme. For them, the making of Irish butter was an Irish industry and should be carried on by Irishmen. The Co-operative Society was not entirely getting co-operation.

A alternative site in Scotland was soon decided upon. James A Flanagan, in Wholesale Co-operation in Scotland, The fruits of Fifty Years (1868-1918) was lyrical about the venture. “The situation of the Bladnoch creamery, established in 1899, is scarcely less charming than that of Enniskillen, and it is something to know that the Wholesale directors have made it their business to choose such delightful sites for establishments engaged in the production of foods that are very susceptible to impurities in the atmosphere. Bladnoch is on the banks of the Bladnoch, near Wigtown, where it enjoys the fragrance of the sea breezes that are wafted in from the arm of the Solway Firth that is named Wigtown Bay. Under the control of the same manager is the Whithorn creamery, established subsequently (in 1902). This is about fifteen miles distant in the same county, nearer the extremity of the peninsula, where it feels the effect of the sea air from east, west, and south. There is no dust-laden atmosphere to contaminate the products. The establishments, both at Bladnoch and Whithorn, are equipped with the latest plant and machinery, and there is a special electrical installation in both places. The processes carried on are similar to those at Enniskillen.” All was in place for the birth of Bluebell…

There is no record of who chose the name ‘Bluebell’ for the new margarine. It appears SCWS had their own, in-house advertising department throughout this period, just as they had their own team of architects designing their buildings. The name was, however, appropriate. In Spring, wild bluebells can be found growing in profusion in the Machars’ woodlands of Wigtownshire, as can snowdrops. Indeed, ‘Snowdrop’ margarine was also produced at the creamery but the name never seems to have had the same resonance with customers, nor the product, the same market share.

However, Bluebell or Snowdrop, there was a problem with consumer reluctance to use margarine. “The chief importance of Bladnoch now is its margarine industry. Before the (First World) War margarine was not popular even in the working-class home, and while people who were known to be well-to-do had no hesitation about using margarine for cooking and baking, many working people who used margarine did not seem to want people to know about it. Adversity makes strange bedfellows, however.”

“The submarine cut off Danish supplies, and the price of butter rose to a serious extent, with the result that a phenomenal demand for margarine was created. The S.C.W.S. factory produced about 20 tons of margarine per week before the war, but now it produces 200 tons per week, and extensive additions to the factory, which are in process, would have been completed before now if it had not been for difficulties surrounding the supply of labour and building material in the acute stages of the war.”

By 1920 other brands had entered the market. In an attempt to outsell Stork and Pheasant, SCWS introduced their own internal competition with the ‘Orchid’ brand. It did not survive. Birds and flower names clearly chosen by all to suggest a natural source for margarine.

‘Bladnoch Margarine’. The location of the creamery was given top billing in this 1922 advert following SCWS’s attempt to brand Wigtownshire as ‘Scotland’s Devon’.

Bluebell adverts stated that the only difference between margarine and butter was the price. Half a century later ‘I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter!’ was launched in the United States and ‘Utterly Buttery’ in the UK. In promoting margarine, nothing seems to have changed.

An enormous and steady increase in sales was claimed in 1926 and the advert lists the reasons for ‘this remarkable increase in consumption’. One of these, “Made in Scotland by Scottish people for Scottish people, and therefore should be bought in preference to the productions of foreign makers”, now looks somewhat xenophobic but competition from abroad was increasing.  It is unfortunate that very sentiment had been raised years before by Irish farmers against SCWS and its creamery in Enniskillen.

“Good News!” But Bluebell had never really gone away. The headline was playing on the fact that this was early 1939 when everyone expected the worst possible news.

Having gained market prominence with butter shortages in the First World War, SCWS sought to benefit again in 1940 when the government was on the verge of introducing food rationing. Despite the conflict, other messages in the adverts did not change. The smartly dressed, confident woman being handed Bluebell by a child; talking about the product to a friend; making sure her children had the healthy, added ‘sunshine vitamins’ and commenting on the benefits of Bluebell margarine to her husband were always present. Just as in other advertising, gender roles and stereotypes were reinforced.

These positive adverts look now to be part of the ‘Phoney War’ that ended in the summer of 1940. After that, commissioned by the Ministry of Food, only two types of “National Margarine” were available. A premium brand costing 9d a pound, and a cheaper, budget brand costing 5d. Both came as blocks wrapped in waxed paper. Before rationing ended in 1954, SCWS began to publish a series of weekly ‘Bluebell Recipes’ for readers to collect and presumably reinforce their previous commitment to the brand with the reminder, “Nowadays, of course, you must use National Brand Margarine, but one day – soon, we hope – “Bluebell” will be back again bringing sunshine to your table, and to all your cooking and baking.”

In the second half of the twentieth century, advertising began to move away from print media to television. Perhaps to counter a lack of personality, a childish Peter Pan like, flower figure, ‘Little Boy Bluebell’ was introduced with the comment, “Look out for him he will have much to say to you.” Many years later, ‘Lurpak’ butter tried a similar approach with an animated figure by Ardman called ‘Douglas’. The Bluebell packaging was also changed, updating it with a modern, simple design that kept the corporate blue and yellow colours but changed the style of lettering and lost the realistic bluebell flowers.

By the 1960s margarine had become a major part of the Western diet and had overtaken butter in popularity. While Bluebell no longer proclaimed in its ingredients the ‘refined fat of prime bullocks’ as it had in the 1920’s, it could not change its traditional appeal in a marketplace of polyunsaturated spreads. Competition from large companies such as Dairy Crest with ‘Clover’ margarine, another plant name, offered a margarine with very low amounts of saturated fats while the company’s ‘Vitalite’ offered a margarine that was virtually trans-fat free.

Increasing competition from supermarkets in the late twentieth century saw the decline of co-operative stores. Its own brand margarine was losing sales. The creamery at Whithorn closed in 1973 and in 1989, the penultimate year of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership, the closure of Bladnoch Creamery was announced. Scottish Office Industry Minister, who was also the local MP, Ian Lang intervened but failed to persuade the Co-operative Wholesale Society to reconsider its decision. With the loss of thousands of jobs in Scotland during those years the closure of a creamery employing 143 people perhaps did not seem that significant. But it had been the single largest employer for ninety years in the Machars of Galloway. In many ways its loss was felt just as severely here as the loss of the mines, the steel industry, shipbuilding and engineering had to the communities which built their livelihoods around them elsewhere in Scotland.

SCWS chose the name ‘Bluebell’ after the plant (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) which spends most of the year as bulbs underground in woodlands, only emerging to flower from April onward. However, the Scottish Bluebell is the Harebell (Campanula rotundifoliais) a perennial, flowering, herbaceous plant in the bellflower family. Summer flowering, it grows in dry, nutrient-poor grasslands and heaths.

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